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Flanders’ textile industry weaves past and future

With hundreds of companies specializing in textiles and fashion, Flanders is home to one of Europe’s largest textile clusters. In addition to relying on a centuries-spanning tradition in high-quality textile manufacturing, the region continues to innovate in this field right up to the present day, spawning novel developments in domains such smart and technical textiles, e-textiles and sustainable fibers. Will you weave your business into Flanders’ textile ecosystem, too? 

Quick facts about the textile industry in Flanders

Backed by a long history that dates back to the cloth industry in the Middle Ages, the textile industry still plays an important economic role in Belgium and Flanders as a region. Together, Belgian textile companies:

  • generate an annual turnover of around EUR 4.3 billion;
  • employ approximately 19,300 people in more than 600 entities, of which almost 90 % are small companies (with fewer than 50 employees);
  • are mainly active in technical textiles (42% of total annual turnover), interior textiles (41%), clothing textiles (11%), textile finishing (4%) and yarn production (2%).

(source: Fedustria, 2019 key figures) 

Unraveling Flanders’ innovative textile ecosystem

Flanders opens up a close-knit business and knowledge ecosystem for your textile business, including dedicated university departments, knowledge and research centers, cluster organizations, business incubators, etc. Discover the many opportunities for your company in the short and sweet summary below.

Textile education, training, research and knowledge centers

Flanders offers education and training programs to foster promising talent in the textile domain, ensuring a steady influx of dedicated professionals as well as lifelong learning and training options. The city of Ghent, in particular, has positioned itself as a higher education hub with textile-relevant tracks such as:

  • a bachelor’s program in textile technology (HoGent);
  • bachelor’s and master’s programs in textile design (KASK, LUCA);
  • a Master of Engineering in materials science: textiles (UGent); and
  • a European master’s program in textile engineering (UGent).

What’s more, the textile sector itself supports the development of new knowledge and skills, offering innovative learning methods at Cobot, a fully-fledged training center for employees in the textile industry.

Several of Flanders’ universities and university colleges also have dedicated research and knowledge centers. One prominent example is UGent’s Center for Textile Science & Engineering, known around the world for its textile research, education and testing services.

In addition, your company can receive innovative support from or collaborate with a variety of R&D centers in Flanders. Here are a few examples:

  • Centexbel is Flanders’ foremost innovation center for smart textiles and smart materials. It offers a range of activities and services ranging from R&D, testing and consultancy to certification and training.
  • The Center for Microsystems Technologies (CMST), which is part of imec (Flanders’ strategic research center for nanotech and digital innovation) focuses on design and technology research in cutting-edge fields such as stretchable microsystems and polymer photonics and structuring. 
  • Flanders Make is Flanders’ strategic research center for innovative product development and manufacturing technologies for a variety of industries, including textile production. 

Textile and fashion business clusters and incubators

Various organizations in Flanders stand ready to help you boost your textile, fashion or creative business. Here’s a non-exhaustive overview: 

  • The Textiles Open Innovation Center (TIO3) offers event, business and office facilities, inspiration and training possibilities tailored to the needs of textile players and start-ups.
  • The Textile Incubation Center seeks to help business in textile-related domains start up or grow.
  • From open test infrastructure to dedicated research and education, the multidisciplinary collaboration project ‘Factories of the Future: New Materials’ aims to transform plastics, textiles and design industry players into genuine factories of the future.
  • Flanders District of Creativity – Flanders DC for short – aims support creative entrepreneurs from their early beginnings all the way to international growth. 
Flanders District of Creativity

Federations and associations that back the textile business

In Flanders, your textile company’s interests are represented by organizations such as:

  • Fedustria, the professional federation for companies in the textile, wood and furniture industries.
  • Symatex, the trade association for manufacturers of machinery and equipment for the textile and plastics processing industries.
  • Unitex, the national association of (technical) executives of the textile industry in Belgium.

The place to be for technical and smart textiles

Apart from interior and garment textiles, many companies in Flanders boast solid expertise in technical textiles, the local textile industry’s fastest growing segment. From agri- and geo-textiles to construction, protective clothing, packaging, industrial, automotive, eco-friendly, sports and medical textiles: the possible applications of technical textiles are vast!

Some eye-catching innovations, products and projects from companies and research centers in Flanders include:

  • smart disposable diapers for measuring moisture content (imec);
  • a textile-based ‘hatchery’ mat for seaweed farming in a maritime environment (Centexbel, Sioen, AtSeaNova);
  • fire-resistant fabrics for the interior cladding of tunnels (VdS Weaving). 

Case in point: smart textiles by imec
mec has many smart textile innovations up its sleeve. To give just one example, the strategic research center for nanotech and digital innovation has developed a two-layer fabric that integrates expandable electronics and conductors. This innovation can be used for medical applications such as pillowcases that monitor a patient’s perspiration rate, and smart disposable diapers that measure moisture content for urologic and care delivery purposes.

In addition, imec is also the brains behind various other smart textiles. These include a smart cycling outfit that prevents lower back pain in cyclists and protective clothing for firefighters with built-in sensors to issue a safety warning in case of excessive heat conditions.

Case in point: Picanol weaves IoT into textile production
When connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), smart looms can warn operators in case they need maintenance long before problems occur. They can also point out how they could be used more effectively. Triggered by these innovative possibilities, Flanders-based company Picanol – a pioneer in the production of looms – entered into a partnership with strategic research center imec in order to turn its traditional looms into smart, connected machines.

Creative textile and fashion hub in the heart of Europe

Flanders is a hub for garment textile creativity. This rings especially true in fashion capital Antwerp. Flanders’ largest city is home to established designers such as the Antwerp Six as well as up-and-coming stars. In fact, the ‘Diamond City’ has been a beacon of art and fashion since the early 1500s. Its Royal Academy of Fine Arts was even praised as “the incubator for the contemporary avant-garde” by New York Times journalist Alice Newell-Hanson.

In addition, various firms in Flanders are leaders on the European market for creative and luxurious interior textile products. Flagships products include carpets, upholstery, wall furnishings, mattress ticking and trimming. The same goes for garment textiles, including knitwear fabrics and materials for fashion accessories, underwear and sports, leisure, formal and professional wear. 

FashionTech designer Jasna Rokegem

Flanders’ smart fashion changes color depending on your mood.

Flanders-based start-up Jasna Rok is creating innovative fashion based on flexible microelectronics, developed by Flanders’ strategic research center imec. Jasna Rok is collaborating with Nokia Bell Labs to further explore tech fashion possibilities. The garments use smart plastics and smart textiles, allowing them to light up or change color depending on the wearer’s mood or brain activity.
Read more about Jasna Rok’s work.

Interesting labor incentives

Some labor incentives and measures available in Flanders are particularly interesting for textile players. Think of:

  • Temporary economic unemployment – employers who cannot employ their workers on a normal basis for economic reasons do not have to pay wages for unemployment days. The Belgian Federal Employment Agency gives employees pay for those days of inactivity.
  • Fiscal advantages for night or shift work – employers are excused from paying part of the advance tax payment deducted from their employees’ wages. This exemption amounts to 18% of the total taxable wages, including the bonuses for working in shifts or night work.